The critics who desire no blood not pain

The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche
September 5, 1997

Much has been said about Nietzsche to discredit his place in the annals of professional philosophy. Here at last is a group of academics willing not only to take Nietzsche seriously, but to take him seriously as a philosopher. This feat, however, requires nothing short of realigning the entire Nietzschean corpus along more sanguine lines. Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins have gathered here a colloquium of experts keen to do just that. Where others criticise Nietzsche for debunking philosophy as so much autobiography writ large, they find a philosopher of magnanimous integrity. Where Nietzsche himself wants to eschew universal truth in favour of private perspective, they present a deep thinker who knows the truth about truth. Where the received tradition portrays Nietzsche as a sexually frustrated, cynical, monkish elitist, they see a sensitive, urbane, caring soul whose primary concern is to show others how to live well.

All of which is to issue a caveat: we may not be getting the full story here. Lurking behind these no doubt well-intentioned pages is, I suspect, a nastier ubermensch who wills only to be "cold and hard" and altogether without "pity". I would be the first to admit that Nietzsche is a notoriously difficult character to classify. His attitudes toward truth, God, the Jews, women and philosophy itself, were, to put it mildly, ambiguous. But to present him as a sober-minded quasi-rationalist committed to the pursuit of truth (though perhaps a representation that ought to be affixed to other, less flattering "masks") is to conceal what may be the more interesting, if not more frustrating side of the man.

The Companion services its intended purpose well. While there is little here for the advanced specialist, its readability and well-documented arguments will satisfy curious novices and devoted students alike. The book includes an annotated chronology ofNietzsche's published works and as thorough a bibliography as one could hope to find in such a work.

Among the theses put forward in the book are: that Nietzsche's work is more a product of protestant Christianity than any other influence (R. J. Hollingdale); that his writings are ethical, not political (T. Strong); that his "perspectivalism" is not a mere aestheticism but a genuine ontology in its own right (R. Schacht); that the ad hominem arguments he uses are appropriate, and persuasive given the assumptions of his psycho-existential critique (R. Solomon); that he was neither a modernist nor a pragmatist, but much more a traditionalist than normally given credit for (A. Nehemas); that, and perhaps most provocatively, his life and thought provide an effective entree into dialogue with Eastern philosophical and religious traditions (G. Parkes).

These are not earth-shaking interpretations. But they will move the ground under the feet of most casual readers ofNietzsche and certainly shake up those who have yet to venture into his works. Both groups should be encouraged to pick up this volume. The articles, unlike those in more critical collections, are "user-friendly": arguments are backed by lengthy citations from primary works, scholars from the Nietzsche industry are mentioned only alongside adequate explanations of their views, and there are, as there should be in any Nietzsche commentary, many anecdotal references that introduce us to the man as well as the philosopher.

The important role of Nietzsche's sister, his "friendship" with Lou Salome, the early death of his pastor-father, his continual illness and eventual madness, are all woven in to the analyses to positive effect.

If there is any one impression left by this collection, it is that Nietzsche is truly a "man for our time". However much he may have wished to hide behind his metaphors and pithy aphorisms, The Cambridge Companion pierces the sacrosanctity of his solitude, bringing us up to date with a thinker whose anxieties sound all too familiar.

Thomas K. Carr is assistant professor, philosophy andreligion, Mount Union College, Ohio.

The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche

Editor - Bernd Magnus and Kathleen M. Higgins
ISBN - 0 521 36586 4 and 36767 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £12.95
Pages - 403

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